Category Archives: Feature

Inter-Religious Dialogue: Compromise of Faith or Expression of Conviction?

February 2019 Feature

In recent years, I have had the opportunity to engage in several inter-faith activities, often as a representative of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS). A few well-meaning Christians have privately expressed to me the discomfort they feel: Was I compromising my Christian faith by participating in these activities? This concern stems from a particular perception of inter-religious dialogue, one based on a model promoted, perhaps most prominently, by the philosopher of religion John Hick. Hick teaches that the major world religions all point to the same reality, which the various religions have described using different terms (e.g. “God”, “heaven”, “nirvana”). In the end, “all roads lead to Rome”, and we end up at the same destination, whichever religious path we follow.

Inter-religious dialogue, for Hick, is therefore an exercise which seeks to uncover common features in our various faith traditions, which will help us see more clearly that we are ultimately on the same journey. It is also needful, during such dialogue, to downplay the distinctive teachings of each religion, as these tend to drive a wedge between the various faiths and blind us to the fact that, at the core, we are all identical.

Space does not allow us to engage in a comprehensive critique of Hick’s position. But one thing we can say is that it demonstrates very clearly the arrogance of the modern age. What Hick is effectively telling the followers of the major world religions (many of whom have studied and practised their faith the whole of their lives) is that he understands their faith better than they do. Religious practitioners are severely limited by their religious blinkers, but Hick (the modern philosopher) is somehow able to rise above all of them and see things from a truly transcendent perspective. He is therefore able to reveal the true nature of their religion to them. Hick’s approach exemplifies the myth of modernity: That we can arrive at an absolute and objective truth by utilising supposedly neutral means like human reason or experience.

In many parts of the world, the modern age has given way to the postmodern. While postmodernity has its harmful excesses, it has helpfully exposed the myth of modernity by showing that all human beings (even the modern philosopher) have our own blinkers. The supposedly neutral status of human reason and experience has been undermined, as we realise that we reason and interpret our experiences in ways significantly influenced by our particular cultural presuppositions.

These developments have major implications on how we view inter-religious dialogue. When followers of different religions speak to one another, there is, in a postmodern environment, no longer the pressure to discover that, at the root, we all believe in the same reality. Instead, postmodernity gives space for each religion to assert its uniqueness. We acknowledge that we hold views which cannot, at the end of the day, be reconciled with those of the other faiths.

But this frank acknowledgement of our differences does not spell the end of dialogue. On the contrary, it sets the stage for genuine dialogue to take place. As theologian William Placher observes (in Unapologetic Theology, p. 146): “Once we recognise that we are not all trying to say the same thing, then we can recognise that some of the things that other people are saying seem to be genuine insights which we can appropriate for ourselves…”

Being set free from the strictures of modernity also allows inter-religious dialogue to take on a more pragmatic tenor. We talk to one another to see if there are areas of overlapping concern where we can work together. This kind of cooperation can take place on the level of individual issues, without being encumbered by unrealistic attempts to achieve uniformity in the way we perceive and respond to everything.

In my limited involvement in inter-faith activities here in Singapore, I find this second view of inter-religious dialogue to be the one undergirding our activities. I take as an example the series of “Building Bridges” seminars held in the years 2012-2013, which focussed on the topic of “Religious Tradition and Authority in a Post-modern World”. Representatives from the NCCS and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) took turns to share perspectives from their own faith on the topic.

There was no attempt by either side to water-down our beliefs or downplay the significant differences which exist between both faiths. We shared how things appear to us as Christians or Muslims, listened respectfully to the perspectives offered by the other side, and gained valuable insights which helped illumine our own situations. We also identified common areas of concern, like the difficulty faced by both faith traditions in combating the pervasive notion of individualism and the consequent disregard of religious authority.

More than that, these seminars represent a precious opportunity for followers of different religions to meet face to face. Through the process, unhelpful stereotypes were dispelled, trust was built up and friendships were formed. As religious tension and conflict fester in our increasingly polarised world, these achievements should not be underrated.



Dr Leow Theng Huat teaches theology and Church history at Trinity Theological College. He is a local preacher in the Methodist Church in Singapore, and a member of Wesley Methodist Church. 

What is the Role of Science in a Christian Life?

January 2019 Feature

Carl Sagan once mentioned that “Science is more than a body of knowledge”. In Sagan’s view, science is a way of thinking by humans, a way of sceptically interrogating the Universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.

We can think of science as a process through which we arrive at a certain conclusion based on a theoretical framework. In the case of the physical sciences, this process is augmented by the language of mathematics. Specifically, science is fundamentally a process for proposing (a statement, hypothesis or theory), testing and refining ideas (paradigms) for natural occurring phenomena in our universe. Science’s most fundamental value – and probably its most important benefit for mankind – is the idea that knowledge comes from experience, rational thought and emerges from rigorous experimentation.

The Concept of Falsifiability in Science

Statements are only considered scientific statements (such as hypotheses or theories) if they are falsifiable or refutable, i.e. if there is the possibility of showing that the statement is false, by checking the results of experiments. A statement is falsifiable if and only if we can imagine that there is an empirical observation that can “prove” the statement false. For instance, the statement “All swans are black” will be refuted when one can find a swan that is not black.

The concept of falsifiability was first introduced by Karl Popper. He emphasized that the distinguishing mark between the scientific and the unscientific lies in the criterion of falsifiability or refutability. What is not falsifiable is considered unscientific. Additionally, when an un-falsifiable theory is declared to be scientifically true, this is considered pseudoscience. Also Pseudoscience tends to reverse the scientific process by assuming a desired conclusion (i.e. the hypotheses or theories are already believed to be true) and then look for evidence that may support that conclusion (hypothesis or theory) while ignoring (or cherry-picking) evidence and arguments that may contradict the desired conclusion.

For instance, an astrologer could claim that “if you are a Virgo, you will suffer bad luck this week”. However, this statement is too broad to be proven wrong – one could cherry pick evidence of “bad luck”, anything from breaking a plate to getting into a car accident – many instances of “bad luck” could happen over a week. As such, a huge range of events could be taken to support the astrologer’s statement; so it cannot be scientifically true.

There are two more subtle aspects to the concept of falsifiability in science. Let us return to the example of the black swan. What happens if one finds a black swan? Does that prove the statement “All swans are black” is true? Not so, because this person has only verified one case. Similarly, scientific statements (theories) cannot be proved for all instances and they are not final, absolute, everlasting truths that will always remain unrefuted. Even if we generalize from a scientific statement and confer it the status of a “The Law” (e.g. Newton’s inverse square law of gravitation), this “Law” is still not final. It is just that humans have yet to disprove the statement.

The above observations beg another question: if scientific statements are not everlasting truths, then can scientific truth – any objects that do not change – exist at all? What is closest to “truth” is the set of experimental facts and data thrown up by Mother Nature which does not change. However, the conclusions we draw from these data points – which are our scientific theories – are only possible interpretations of a set of data. For instance, Newton’s gravitation law “explain” the experimental facts we observe when masses move at low velocities and in low gravitational fields, but cannot explain the “wobbling” of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun. So, we know that Newton’s law cannot be the final truth since it cannot describe the observational data.

A more robust interpretation of the same set of the data, that can explain more, is Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It is able to explain all current known facts of the world that Newton’s law is able to, and more (e.g. predict other phenomena). For instance, one additional fact it (Relativity Theory) can explain is that Mercury’s peculiar orbit is due to the significant curvature of space-time as a result of the Sun’s mass.

The notion that science is not absolute truth was reiterated by Max Born (1954 Noble Laureate for the Quantum Theory) who remarked “I believe that ideas such as absolute certitude, absolute exactness, final truth, etc. are figments of the imagination which should not be admissible in any field of science … this loosening of thinking seems to me to be the greatest blessing which modern science has given us.”

The Role of Science in a Christian Life

Now that the main gist of scientific thought has been presented, let us address the question in the title: What is the possible role of science in a Christian life, and how should a Christian regard science, especially in seeking out God’s design for the universe and mankind?

Some Christians might feel that science and Christian faith are incompatible and should be kept separate; unlike the answers offered by faith, science fails to offer the assurance that our knowledge of the universe is final and absolute. This might compel Christians among us to wholly reject the scientific approach, and in doing so, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

However, as argued in this essay, science should not be thought of as final and absolute. Scientific statements are only ways of thinking at a point of time – approximations of truth which can be falsified but never definitively proven – that could be replaced by better interpretations of data and more accurate experimental observations. As such, we should think of scientific discoveries and theories as complementary (but not as a mechanism offering definitive proof) to the Bible and our Christian lives. Both are mutually supportive approaches to finding out about God’s creation. Science is a human understanding of natural world while the Bible (with the Holy Spirit working through us as we study it) describes supernatural world. There are limits to what science can “prove” (or “attempt to explain”) about the existence of God, and we should acknowledge the possibility that our best scientific theories today still have their limitations.

With this attitude, a Christian need not feel that science and our Christian faith are incompatible or always in conflict. Many people are surprised to find out that physicists in the past and present believe in our God. Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell (of Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism fame) and Lord Kelvin (who played a role in formulating the first and second laws of thermodynamics) were Christians.

Scientific thought has provided the impetus for tremendous human advancement. The approach adopted by science – the Socratic approach of reason and question – is grounded in the Greek historical tradition. However, as Christians, we should not neglect the Hebrew way of thinking espoused by Apostle Paul who encouraged us to trace our Judea-Christian faith to the Hebrew olive root “… have been grafted in among the others to share in the nourishment of the olive root (Romans 11:23).

 How to Approach Scholarship

It is important to note that followers of the Socratic and Hebrew traditions of scholarship have different motivations towards learning about the Universe. While Greeks learned through the powerful method of interrogating facts of nature in order to comprehend, Hebrews interrogated critically and sought knowledge (about nature and the Bible) in order to revere God.

Another difference between the two traditions is in how the Greeks, when conducting inquiries, proceed from man’s knowledge as a starting point. The rational mind seeks to comprehend nature and the ways of God through human knowledge and reason. In contrast, the Hebrew way of acquiring knowledge begins with the belief in God by faith and nature being created by Him. The only true wisdom is knowledge of God; the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). To the Hebrews, man must acknowledge that he can never really know himself, who he is, and his relation to the universe, unless he first learns to revere God and be submissive to God’s sovereign will, just as how Abraham grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God. (Romans 4:20).

Our Christian Response

The scientific process is a creative human activity. As creatures created in the image of a creative God who is infinite in knowledge, it is not surprising that humans possess the ability and motivation to create. This scientific activity in creating new knowledge (and re-creation) will go on indefinitely. Especially for the physical sciences, humans can only claim to construct theories to describe the data from natural phenomena as approximate truths that best explain these phenomena based on a (mathematical) theory.

However, we should note that science and even theological works are still a function of human experiences and cultures at each epoch of time. MIT trained theoretical physicist, Lawrence Krauss asserts that “physics is a human creative intellectual activity, like art and music. Physics has helped forge our cultural experience. I am not sure what will be most influential in the legacy we pass on, but I am sure that it is a grave mistake to ignore the cultural aspect of our scientific tradition”.

They are endeavours which are subject to various human interpretations. Thus no one should claim that he or she has arrived at a “final interpretation”, given our human susceptibility to confirmation bias, fallibility in the form of ambition and overconfidence, serendipitous discoveries and the like. 1 Cor. 13:8 reminds us … where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

There is a saying that “War is too important to be left to the military generals”. Science is also too important to be left to the scientists. Where the careful study of God’s design of the universe is concerned, no one can definitively claim that there is one interpretation of a given text, including the Bible. Thus, the power of science demands great responsibility from us.

To circumvent biases, we need genuine Christian love and fellowship amongst believers to be open to rigorous debate, honest discussion and careful evaluation of arguments and peer challenges. Above all, we should endeavour to build each other up in love. According to Apostle Paul, we all only know in part (1 Cor. 13: 9, 12) and will not possess full knowledge till we meet the Lord.

To sum up, we can only disprove a scientific theory and not prove it as the final, unwavering truth. R. Feynman (Nobel Prize 1965 for Quantum Electrodynamics) reminds us that “… All scientific knowledge is uncertain.” We as practising Christian scientists should therefore be modest and mindful of this attitude as we seek to walk humbly with God. (Micah 6: 8). After all, science can only complement the Bible; all knowledge will eventually pass away and only God’s love is permanent.


Dr Phil Chan supports Christian discipleship in the Cru-Singapore ministry and worships at EL Assembly. He is a high energy particle physics professor, deputy head at NUS physics department and was the Chair for General Education (Provost Office) for the last 6 years.

Plastic Planet

December 2018 Feature

Snorkelling off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in 2016, nature photographer, Justin Hofman,  snapped a picture of a tiny seahorse latching on to a cotton swab, which was to bring to the world’s attention a situation that we have lived with in tacit complicity.  The photograph shared on Instagram was telling of the pervasive and pernicious problem of plastic pollution in our urban contexts, in our cities, in our waterways and in our oceans.

Two recent documentaries that highlight this prevalent plastic problem are Plastic Paradise and A Plastic Ocean.   In a study that was featured in the Guardian, Damian Carrington wrote: “The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants…”  I fear that our part in this plastic problem will affect even more species and will ultimately hurt ourselves.

Plastics have been an indispensable part of modernity and all it takes for you to realise its ubiquity is to consider the machines, utensils, appliances, devices, wardrobe, packaging, et cetera – that you use or come in contact with every single moment.

Yet the history of plastics (as it is applied today) is a rather recent invention, which is about as “far” back as the 1950s!  Yet, as researchers Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law observed,

the growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substantially outpaced any other manufactured material. The same properties that make plastics so versatile in innumerable applications – durability and resistance to degradation – make these materials difficult or impossible for nature to assimilate. Thus, without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.  (emphasis mine)

And to that effect, the June 2018 issue of National Geographic features a pervasive and pernicious problem – plastics and its effect on the natural environment.

My particular interest in this development in mission studies is precipitated by the reticence among Christian academics and pastors in the area of stewardship/creation care as well as our complicity in exacerbating the current crisis.  Consider the imperceptive and prodigal use of plastic/polystyrene in church functions.   It may well be that we have a flawed eschatology, further fuelled by some of our Christian songs – whether it is John Newton’s last stanza of Amazing Grace or Carrie Underwood’s Temporary Home.  Or it is possibly a result of our faulty hermeneutics, where we have misunderstood God’s intention is giving to humanity the ‘exercise of dominion’ (or to subdue) in the creation account in Genesis 1.

Richard Bauckham commenting on Genesis 1 wrote:

Genesis 1 does not authorise an undifferentiated human rule over the rest of creation, even when this is interpreted as stewardship.  It distinguishes between human use of the earth, with its vegetation, for human life and flourishing, a right to be exercised responsibly, and human dominion over the rest of the animate creation.  For which humans have a responsibility to care.

Similarly, Old Testament scholar, Gordon Wenham in summarising the meaning of rule (or dominion), adds:

Because man is created in God’s image, he is king over nature.  He rules the world on God’s behalf.  This is of course no licence for the unbridled exploitation and subjugation of nature. Ancient oriental kings were expected to be devoted to the welfare of their subjects, especially the poorest and weakest members of society (Psalm 72:12-14).  By upholding divine principles of law and justice, rulers promoted peace and prosperity for all their subjects.  Similarly, mankind is here commissioned to rule nature as a benevolent king, acting as God’s representative over them and therefore treating them in the same way as God who created them.  Thus animals, though subject to man, are viewed as his companions in 2:18-20…

The Hebrew terms, kavash (subdue) and radah  (rule) in Genesis 1:26-28 carries the meaning that humanity was to exercise a rule over the whole of creation synonymous with that of benevolent kings.  The kings were not to rule for their own interests but rather for the welfare of their subjects.  Furthermore, in contrast to an anthropocentric worldview of the Enlightenment that perceives the superiority of humanity over the rest of creation and that prioritises creation merely for the use of man, Christopher Wright contends that “there is a paradoxical balance between the command in Gen. 1:27 to ‘ … have dominion’ over the rest of creation and the instruction in Gen. 2:15 ‘ … to serve the earth and keep it’.  Dominion through servanthood is humanity’s role, which in itself is an interesting reflection of Christ’s.”

How do we understand our role in God’s creation?  How should Christians react in the face of this plastic problem?

This article is hopefully one that provides an occasion for us to think (and question) that which we hold on to without considering the contexts, the conversations and the consequences.  And I certainly hope that it will challenge our status quo, which is often predicated by costs, convenience and comfort.

And perhaps we should purposefully stop and think about our actions; if not for our sakes, it should be for our children, for our children’s children, for the remaining of God’s creation and ultimately for the glory and purposes for which God created this earth.  We need to remember that “this is my Father’s world!”

Finally, instead of just reduce, reuse and recycle, if possible we should flatly refuse (especially the single-use plastics!).


Dr Andrew Peh is a lecturer in mission at Trinity Theological College. He is also an alumnus of Trinity Theological College as well as E Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism, of Asbury Theological Seminary. He is also ordained as a diaconal minister with the Chinese Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in Singapore.

On Sound Bites and Silence

November 2018 Feature

During the mid-autumn festival, my sister-in-law received a box of mooncakes from a property developer who was constructing a sky-scrapper office building right beside her apartment complex. Instead of going over the moon with the gift, she filed a complaint to the developer for noise pollution. The reason: work on the project has been going on into the wee hours of the morning almost daily, bringing with it an incessant humdrum of construction activity and noise pollution.

The problem of noise pollution has, in fact, become a major global concern. A report by the World Economic Forum in March, 2017, lists cities with the worst noise pollution. Among them are Guangzhou, Delhi, Cairo, Mumbai, Istanbul and Beijing. The problem is so bad in these cities that it is affecting their hearing. Singapore received a Worldwide Hearing Index rating of 1.08, putting us in the middle of the scale of fifty cities tested for noise pollution.

While you may not have to deal with a construction project right beside your home, the probability that you are regularly confronted with excessive noise of one form or another is quite high. It can be noise from the traffic, road works, your own television set and radio or, if you live near an airbase, the sound of military fighter jets booming over your home. Whatever the source, it is not too far-fetched to say that we are daily inundated by noise.

Unfortunately, some have gotten so used to living with noise that they seem not to be able to live without it! The common sight of people walking with headphones or earpieces is testimony to it. Yet, being constantly exposed to noise has dire consequences. A brochure by the National Addictions Management Service in Singapore lists noise as a major contributor to stress-related illnesses such as anxiety and insomnia. Prolonged exposure to noise is detrimental to our health. Over time, we lose the ability to hear not only sound but also our own thoughts and emotions. We lose touch with ourselves.

Sadly, many do not know how to be quiet despite knowing the benefits of silence. They dare not retreat into it, for sheer silence seem deafening to them. Yet, the practice of silence is not only good for our physical, emotional and mental health, it is especially important to our relationship with God.

I wish to highlight some benefits that the practice of silence brings to our relationship with God–and with others.

The Greek word for silence we wish to consider is hésychia. It describes that God-produced calm which includes an inner tranquillity that supports appropriate action (J. Thayer). We notice two aspects here. First, the calm that comes through the practice of silence is produced by God. It is an inner tranquillity. In other words, it is a peace that is much deeper than just the absence of noise. It is the inner assurance of God’s control over the chaos of life which sets us at peace–that which the psalmist echoes in Psalm 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God.”

This understanding of silence is primarily God-focused. Going into silence, we learn to wait, to watch and to listen to God. As such, the practice of silence revolves around the Word and the works of God. The Word, as we find it in Scripture, both precedes and follows our practice of silence. We enter into silence aware that we come before God (Hab. 2:20). We read the Word and ponder over it; we sit quietly to listen to it as to God (Ps 119: 15-16).

As we do, the Word of God searches our minds and hearts. Through the Holy Spirit, God works to clarify our thoughts and align them with his. We become more aware of our anxieties. We ask God to address them and remind us of his promises. We also begin to be more aware of our heart’s desires and motivations. We ask God to purify and guide them, to align them with his purposes. In silence, God begins to deliver us from the harassment of our anxious thoughts and devious hearts and guides us into life in Jesus Christ.

As theologian Gordon Smith affirms, “It is in the silence that we meet and hear Christ and attend to the inner witness of his Spirit through the Word of God–not only the inscripturated Word in the Bible, but also the specific Word of God speaking into the particular circumstances of our lives.”

This brings us to the second aspect of Thayer’s definition: the appropriate action that stems from inner tranquillity. Silence is not the same as passivity; rather, it is the depth from which arises an appropriate word or action. We become less reactive to external stimuli but more able to respond from an inner solitude forged by God. We are more alert to what God is doing—and wants us to do. God purifies our minds and hearts and enables us to relate better to others. This is a fruit of silence.

As the desert fathers say, silence is both the first duty of life and the first duty of love. As the first duty of love, it is the first requirement for survival within community. In other words, silence reaps not only the fruit of greater ability to hear God–and ourselves—it also enables us to better hear and respond to others.

The desert father, Abba Poemen said, “Someone may seem to be silent, but if in the heart one is condemning others, then one is babbling ceaselessly. And there may be another who talks from morning till evening, and yet in the heart that person is truly silent. That person says nothing that is not profitable.”

The practice of silence is sorely needed in a world polluted by noise. It not only rescues us from the destructiveness of excessive noise but releases us into the serenity of life in God. It helps us not only to hear and follow God but also to hear and love our neighbour.



Rev Dr Jimmy Tan is lecturer of Pastoral and Practical Theology at Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Singapore.

More an Onion Than an Apple

October 2018 Feature

There is a strong call coming from Christian leaders to make a stand against those who call upon our legislators to review Section 377A of the Penal Code that criminalises homosexual acts.  Emotions are running high on both sides of the divide.  Some of us received requests to sign petitions from those who want homosexual acts to be decriminalised as well as from those who insist that Section 377A should remain as it is.

There are persuasive arguments on both sides.  It is not my purpose to rehash the arguments and to persuade on behalf of one side or the other.  It appears to me that the majority of the Christians are for Section 377A to remain undisturbed.  There is of course a minority of Christians who are for the repeal of the section.

My purpose is to highlight the need to be mature enough to persuade one another without ending up making wrong judgments against each other.  This is what I mean by “more an onion than an apple”.  The danger is that we may end up rejecting those who share the same faith but not the same position on this issue.  That would not be gracious nor kind.

For instance, it is easy to conclude that those among us who want the law to remain as it is are simply homophobic.  When we do that, we descend into name-calling.  It is also easy to conclude that those who are against criminalisation of homosexual acts are in support of the act.  In both situations, a judgment has been made against a fellow believer – and the judgment could be wrong and therefore unjust.

This hastiness to judge could well be the function of looking at the issues like an apple.  It is one whole.  You cannot separate the apple like you can with an onion by peeling off the layers.  In the latter, one can be against criminalisation without being for homosexual acts.  Like an onion, you peel each layer and you deal with the issues layer by layer.  In the former, the apple is one unpeelable whole, so if you are against criminalisation, you must be for the act itself.

As I read the arguments for and against the repeal of Section 377A, I am both optimistic and pessimistic.  Optimistic when we can pray and think through the issues and make a decision for ourselves according to our Christian conscience and understanding of the Word and respect others who, on their own conscience and understanding, make a different decision.  I am pessimistic when one is pressured to think that there is only one right decision and when one is quickly judged when one makes a decision that contradicts the “right” decision, whatever that may be.

There are two texts in the Scriptures that I feel should help us at this time towards a gracious and kind debate.

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6).

According to Vincent’s Word Studies, both words are found only here in Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  The function of salt is both in preserving and in rendering something palatable.  In the context of speech, both in Greek and Latin authors, salt was used to express the pungency and wittiness of speech.  Horace speaks of having praised a poet for rubbing the city with abundant salt, i.e., for having wittily satirised certain parties so as to make them smart as if rubbed with salt.

Lightfoot gives some interesting citations from Plutarch, in which, as here, grace and salt are combined.  Thus: “The many call salt χάριτας graces, because, mingled with most things, it makes them agreeable and pleasant to the taste.”  Seasoned is, literally, prepared.  It is not likely that the fact has any connection with this expression, but it is interesting to recall Herodotus’ story of a salt lake in the neighborhood of Colossae, which has been identified, and which still supplies the whole surrounding country with salt (vii., 30).  The exhortation to well-seasoned and becoming speech is expanded in Ephesians 4:29; Ephesians 5:4, in a warning against corrupt communication.

Matthew Poole adds, “Let your speech be always with grace: because discourse is the tenderest part of our converse with men, especially those without, and ought to be managed with the greatest circumspection, upon occasions in every fit season, in imitation of Christ, who entertained those that did converse with him with gracious words, you should endeavour so to speak when called, that the hearers may conceive your discourse doth proceed from a gracious spirit, or grace in the heart, with meekness of wisdom, using knowledge aright, being in its tendency gracious, not ungrateful, (as tinctured with gall or venom), but ministering grace to the hearers.”

And “seasoned with salt”, “even as meat duly powdered with salt becomes acceptable to the discerning palate, so to the ear that heard the speech, fitly spoken words are of a grateful savour, cleansed from corruption.”

Paul also urges “…speaking the truth in love…” in Eph 4:15.  According to the Pulpit Commentary, the phrase “is hardly translatable in English.  It implies being true as well as speaking the truth and following the truth.  Truth is the element in which we are to live, move, and have our being; fidelity to truth is the backbone of the Christian ministry.  But truth must be inseparably married to love; good tidings spoken harshly are no good tidings; the charm of the message is destroyed by the discordant spirit of the messenger.  The more painful the first impression which a truth is fitted to produce (e.g., Ephesians 2:1-3), the more need is there for dealing with it in love – a much-needed and much-neglected exhortation.”

Of course, everyone on both sides of the divide believes that he is speaking the truth.  But the question is whether it is spoken in love.  I suggest that in peeling the onion, there are different layers of truth and we should be humble enough to accept that even when we have a common reference to the same Bible and the common illuminator in the Holy Spirit, we still end up having different theological positions locked up in different denominations and expressed in so many diverse Christian communities.  Clearly, like a diamond, we reflect different facets of the truth and we should be gracious and kind enough to respect one another’s position even when we are on different sides of the divide.


Dr. William Wan is the General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement. He is also a winner of the Active Ager Award (Council of the Third Age) 2011. Prior to taking on this role as General Secretary, he was practising law and managing a psychometric company. Dr Wan also sits on the advisory panel of The Bible Society of Singapore.

Citizens of Heaven on Earth

September 2018 Feature

Recently, I became acquainted with the striking story of a 22 year old Singaporean while visiting a friend in San Francisco. At the age of 3, he relocated with his Singaporean parents to the United States. Being immersed in American life and culture, he grew up like any American would.

Life would have continued along the American path, if not for the letter he received from the Ministry of Defence fifteen years later, summoning him to enlist for national service.

What seemed striking to me was his subsequent response to the enlistment letter. Instead of perceiving national service as an inconvenient disruption to pursuits in “the land of opportunity” as some call America, he embraced it as an opportunity to deepen his roots. Taking his citizenship seriously, he discharged his responsibilities in the military with distinction and became an air warfare officer.

Cynics may interpret the above story as an expression of youthful idealism that so happens to be in line with national interest. Having personally met the young man and lived abroad for some years myself, I do not doubt his motivation for national service. There is something about citizenship that resonates deeply with our human desire for a sense of belonging and identity.

Recognising the theological and didactic potential of the citizenship imagery, writers of the New Testament employed it freely to convey their message to early believers living in the Graeco-Roman world.

The status of these believers as citizens or resident aliens were earthly realities that helped to elucidate teachings concerning Christian identity, its standard of behaviour and future hope. These teachings often juxtaposed the realities surrounding the earthly, political status of Christians with that of their heavenly citizenship. Indeed, priority is consistently accorded to the latter.

One of the clearest instances in which the Christian’s heavenly citizenship is given priority is found in Paul’s declaration to the believers in Philippi: “But our citizenship is in heaven.” (Phil 3:20). Paul’s declaration has a twofold implication for his recipients. Firstly, they are not to pursue “earthly things” as the “enemies of the cross of Christ” do (Phil 3:18, 19), but live lives which are in keeping with their heavenly citizenship. Secondly, they are to place their hope in no one else but “the Lord Jesus Christ” who has the power to “subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:21).

When situated within the political climate of Paul’s day, his declaration above is both radical and risky. The imperial cult worshipped the Roman emperor as saviour and Lord. Thus, calling Christians to confess Jesus of Nazareth not simply as “Christ” but also as “Saviour” and “Lord” is to pit the authority of Jesus with that of Caesar’s.

For Paul, the issue at stake in the Christian’s heavenly citizenship is allegiance to Jesus Christ. Working out what this allegiance means while living under Roman rule was a crucial aspect of early Christian discipleship.

Although the political context is different for Christians in Singapore, the same challenge of being citizens of heaven on earth still applies. Like the early church, we too must work out what it means to confess Jesus Christ as Lord in our context. Carrying out such a task responsibly would require us to take seriously the tension between Christ’s insistence that his kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn 18:36), and the equally clear assertion that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ…” (Rev 20:15).

Holding on to this tension is important so that we do not fall into one of two errors: (1) failure to acknowledge the authority of Christ over the world, including civil institutions like governments; (2) failure to distinguish the authority of civil institutions from the authority of Christ over his church.

The first error leads to disengagement with society or nonchalance about our civil responsibilities. The second legitimises a politicised view of Christianity that treats our civil and political life as spheres in which the church has authority to govern.

As we celebrate 52 years of Singapore’s independence this year, it is appropriate to consider afresh what it means to live as citizens of heaven on earth. This task is especially critical in a time where the social fabric of our multi-racial and multi-religious society is being tested by the threat of religious extremism.

Often, there is no simple answer to the way our allegiance to Christ should look like in the specific details of our earthly citizenship. However, the Biblical portrait of such a citizen is clear.

According to the anonymous, second century writer of the Epistle to Diognetus, “Christians…inhabit the lands of their birth, but as temporary residents thereof; they take their share of responsibilities as citizens, and endure all disabilities as aliens. Every foreign land is native to them, and every native land, foreign territory…They pass their days upon earth, but they hold citizenship in heaven.” 1

Like the saints of old, we long for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16) and point others to its glory by the way we live.



Rev Dr Edwin Tay is the Vice-Principal of Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Singapore. He holds degrees from the National University of Singapore (BA), the University of London (MA), and the University of Edinburgh (PhD).

Christian Worship and the Shortage of Space

August 2018 Feature

Churches in Singapore have to deal with a reality that is unique, compared to many of their counterparts in other countries. Many of the churches here have been built on land that has a leasehold tenure of 30 years (or are located in buildings that have a similar leasehold arrangement). Every 30 years, these churches need to renew their leases to use the space for another 30 years, at the prevailing market rates. The net effect is a financial burden that few churches in other countries have to bear. Based on some estimates, the additional financial commitment  necessary to sustain these leases can take up as much as 20% of a church’s annual budget, considering the typical weekly combined worship attendance of between 1,000 and 1,500 worshippers.

Given such burdens, while churches that are sitting on freehold properties can channel much of their funds to useful ministries, other less fortunate churches are constantly on a fund-raising mode to sustain the use of their facilities. Many churches do so with the hope that, once the lease is renewed, their congregations would continue to grow. This would hopefully lessen the financial burden, per capita, for the next lease renewal. However, that hope is also limited by the fact that the church can only accommodate so many additional members on a Sunday, as far as the physical space is concerned. This is quite a sombre language to use in talking about the ministry of the gospel! But it is a stark reality that many churches in Singapore have to grapple with.

Coupled with this is another trend, which is the growing number of Christians. According to the latest population census report in Singapore (2010), the general population grew at the rate of approximately 2.34% p.a. in the past 10 years. The number of Christian worshippers, however, grew from 588,000 in 2000 to 930,000 in 2010 (as reported in the Straits Times on 23 Feb 2015), an annualised growth rate of 4.7% p.a. That is double the rate of the population increase. While the data on the physical space allocated for religious use in Singapore (especially for use by Christian churches) is not available to the public, it is nonetheless conceivable that the space crunch for churches in Singapore will be increasing in the years to come, based on the trends mentioned here. In other words, Christians in Singapore have a problem at hand.

So, what is the solution? Among other things, the Singapore government is encouraging the development of a new approach to the sharing of space for Christian worship — a hub for multiple churches to use. Quite recently, such a project was announced: a $25m hub was proposed at a location in Jurong. Despite some teething issues in that particular project, such an approach can alleviate the space constraints to some extent. However, one might ask, will that be an adequate measure in the long run, given the trends? How effectively would a project for 3 or 4 churches be a solution for the more than 500 Protestant congregations (according to the Straits Times report mentioned above) that exist in Singapore? A more profound solution, I think, have to come from Christians themselves.

For the past two thousand years, most Christian communities have their worship on Sundays. This goes back all the way to the book of Acts, where it is mentioned that the Christians gathered together on the first day of the week, Sunday (Acts 20:7). Apparently, it was chosen because our Lord Jesus resurrected on a Sunday, and it is also the first day of creation (Justin Martyr, I Apology, 67). In 1 Cor 16:2, the apostle Paul also indicates that the church gathered on “the first day of the week”.  At about 100 A.D., the Apostolic Father Ignatius also mentioned that the church met on a “Lord’s Day” (Letter to the Magnesians, 9). So, with some minor exceptions, Christians have gathered together on Sundays for worship since the earliest days of the church, as far as we know. However, can some adjustment be made to accommodate the growing number of worshippers in our churches?

Perhaps, in this regard, churches in Singapore should consider holding their worship services on Saturday evenings, in addition to Sundays. This is what some churches are already doing, in order to accommodate the growth in the size of their congregations. If we were to follow the Jewish reckoning of the day, our Lord’s day would have started on a Saturday evening, just as the Jewish Sabbath would have begun from Friday evening. In that way, Christians can still remain faithful to the significance of worshipping the Lord on a Sunday as a church.

As a Presbyterian pastor, I can in fact go one step further to take into consideration what Scripture says with regard to the question of worshipping on a Saturday evening. Regarding the keeping of special days, the Bible says that whether a person considers one day to be sacred, or everyday to be sacred, it is fine as long as he does so to the Lord (Rom 14:6). No one is supposed to make the observance of certain days a legal requirement (Gal 4:9-10), nor should Christians allow anyone to judge them on such a basis (Col 2:16-17).

Admittedly, the original contexts of these biblical injunctions are not whether a church can worship on a day other than Sunday. Nonetheless, I think the overall principle that can be drawn from these passages is that the specific day in which the church gathers is itself not the most crucial issue. In other words, whether Christians come together for their weekly worship on a Saturday evening or a Sunday, there is some room for flexibility. Then again, given the deep significance of Christian worship on a Sunday mentioned earlier (with Saturday evening being an acceptable time-frame according to the Jewish reckoning), I would not venture further to suggest that any day of the week would be acceptable. It is still important, in my view, for the church service to gravitate towards the Lord’s Day (Sunday) itself, which is how Christians have regarded it since the earliest times.

Given the long-term implications of the severe cost of land use in Singapore, it is time for Christians to rethink their use of the available church space. It is not just about using the church premises for running other community services like kindergartens during the week. It is also about allowing the church to accommodate a much larger number of believers. This must first begin with a renewal of our understanding of worship, and a reconsideration of what it means to come together as a congregation to render praise to God as a body of Christ, when we listen to the proclamation of his word. It requires a rethinking of our theology, and a recalibration of our set practices. This is something that the theologians from the West do not need to address, since it is not the situation their churches are facing! If churches in Singapore are able to make adjustments and seriously consider having worship services on Saturday evenings in addition to Sunday, it would contribute significantly towards alleviating our space constraints in the long term.

May the Lord grant us wisdom as we make decisions that would serve the interests of the kingdom of God and remain faithful to his sacred word! Amen.


Rev Dr Leonard Wee is New Testament lecturer at Trinity Theological College (TTC), and an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church in Singapore. He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Durham and holds degrees from the National University of Singapore (B.B.A.) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.).

A Common Platform

July 2018 Feature

For anyone living in this century, it is evident that one of the contemporary issues facing the world today is that of religious diversity. From the perspective of a Christian, the question of the role of other religions is especially acute given the ultimate claims to truth and salvation that Jesus Christ has made.

However, this phenomenon of multiple religious traditions is not a new one. The books of the Old Testament were written during times when peoples of other faiths surrounded the nation of Israel. The same holds true for the New Testament when Greco-Roman religions proliferated alongside the newly established religion of Christianity.

In some ways, this necessity to learn how to understand other religions is not unique to the Christian faith.  Every major world religion in its history has had to grapple with the existence of the “others” ever since they become conscious of the existence of one another. Each tradition has had to learn to navigate its way through its social, historical and religious contexts.

The contemporary theologian of religions, Harold Netland, has pointed out that it is increasingly important for Christians in the twenty-first century to respond to the changing religious landscape. He asserts it is possible for Christians to be firmly committed to Christ as Lord and be responsible citizens in their own countries. At the same time, he calls for new ways for Christians to respond to the other faiths rather than merely repeating the practices of the past.

As different religions attempt to co-exist, co-operate or even compete with one another for converts, it is crucial that a shared framework or language be found to avoid misunderstandings. This is especially so given there is always some level of incommensurability to religions. Words such as “God” and “salvation” can mean very different things to a Christian or a Buddhist.

The scholar of religion and philosopher, Robert McKim, has proposed that when it comes to determining what he calls “attitudes to and beliefs about others,” it is helpful to note the ranges of positions that one may adopt. He proposed that for any religion, its self-understanding with respect to another tradition can be classified under one of the following categories. That it is:

  1. The only tradition that is any good in the relevant respect
  2. The tradition that is better than other traditions in the relevant respect
  3. A tradition that is as good as other traditions in the relevant respect

These constitute the starting points for what is commonly known in the field of theology of religions as the traditional three-fold typology of exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist positions respectively. McKim also argues that this schema is suitable not only for theistic faiths but non-theistic ones too.

If that is so, then by utilizing a common vocabulary of terms and conceptual structure, this may allow the various traditions to participate in a form of dialogue that promotes understanding of the other. While it may not wholly nullify the difficulties to attempt to read another using only its categories, it could represent an initial step towards reducing isolationism and enhancing greater concordance.

The typology proposed above may be used with respect to issues of truth and salvation. It may also be employed concerning other matters, such as the ethical guidance provided in each religion.

While some Christian scholars have argued that the tri-fold typology which was initially proposed by Alan Race and Gavin D’Costa is skewed towards pluralism, subsequent analysis by others have shown it is, in fact, a relatively neutral logical construct that each respective position could claim to be biased in or against its stance.

Also, despite these objections, since its first proposal in the 1960s, the tri-polar schema has continued to play a significant role within Christian theology for scholars to clarify their assertions. In addition, while many other competing proposals have been put forth, none seems to be capable of replacing the traditional proposition, as seen in the recent numerous scholarly articles that continue to argue based on, either explicitly or implicitly, its underlying logical structure.

It is possible that this analytical framework could be one of the tools that the Christian tradition may offer to the broader world of inter-religious understanding, given that it was developed within itself and undergone robust discussion. As an Adjunct Lecturer at the NTU S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) for a post-graduate course entitled “Christianity and Religious Diversity,” I have found it serves as a common platform for students from various religious backgrounds to discuss features of their faiths vis-à-vis another as part of the M.Sc program.


 

Dr Tan Loe Joo is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College.

Caring for the World’s Vulnerable Children and Families

June 2018 Feature

Sarah* and I arrived at the orphanage around the same time, I as a short term volunteer, her as the newest resident.  I assumed that I knew her story.  I assumed she had no father or mother to care for her and that the orphanage was her only option.  I later learned that she had a mother who cried as she left her at the orphanage.  Obviously, I was wrong.

The fact is Sarah’s story is the story of the majority of children living in orphanages today.  On the ground research studies have shown that, depending on the geographical location, anywhere from 50-90% of children living in orphanages have a living parent.  Not an auntie or a grandfather, a living parent.  This article will explore why children are placed in orphanages when they are not, in fact, orphans and the detrimental affects of this reality.  Further, it will discuss why, as Christians, we should care about these vulnerable children and families.  It will end by offering examples of best practices and ways forward to best serve these children and families of God.

The majority of children who live in orphanages today are there because their family is experiencing poverty or other hardships, not because they have no one who loves or wishes to care for them. Parents in this situation are left with an excruciating choice.  Parents can be “pulled” towards placing their children in an orphanage with the promise of meals, education and basic provisions.  Sometimes these provisions are there, other times they are promised but not provided.  Experts in the field note that this “pull factor” of orphanages can often circumvent other options for families in this position.

Research routinely shows that children thrive and grow as God intended when they are in a family.  Of course, this is ideally the child’s biological family – parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles.  However, we live in a broken world.  Sometimes foster families must step up to care for children when it is unsafe or inappropriate for the biological family to do so.  Conversely, research shows that growing up in an orphanage inhibits healthy development in children, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Further, orphanages often end their care when the child turns eighteen leaving them vulnerable and without the continuing support of a community or family.  No orphanage, not even the best and most reputable among them, can replace a family.

As Christians, we should be appalled that any parent has to make a choice between keeping their children at home and placing them in an orphanage.  For those of you who are parents reading this, how would you feel faced with this decision?  All three of the Synoptic Gospels call us to love our neighbor as we love our self (Matt. 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27).  We could just as easily say that we should also “love our neighbor’s children as we love our own children.”  If faced with a sudden loss of income, an illness, or tragic loss of a spouse, what would you desire for your family and children?  Thankfully, placing one’s children in an orphanage is not the only option available.

It is abundantly clear that Jesus deeply loves and cares for children and those on the margins of society.  James 1:27 is an often quoted verse when it comes to this issue:  “Religion that is pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”  Wouldn’t the best way to look after the orphan in question be to keep them from becoming an “orphan” in the first place?  Wouldn’t the best option for the widow be to keep her family intact and her children at home in her care?

To do this, practitioners in the field who are working with vulnerable children and families refer to a model called the continuum of care.  Essentially, the continuum of care is a line graph that depicts on a scale the most preferred to the least preferred outcome for a vulnerable or separated child.  Put another way, this models seeks to find the best solution by putting the child’s holistic well-being at the center of the conversation.

For example, at the beginning of the continuum of care is usually “family preservation”.  If one can keep a family intact, there is no need for alternative forms of care to come into play.  Family preservation can take many forms, but often includes small business development so that the parents can obtain an income to care for their children, teaching parenting skills, free or reduced-cost child care, etc.  Often, next in the continuum is kinship care.  This means a child is placed with extended family such as a grandparent or aunt/uncle.  At the far end of the continuum of care is large scale residential facilities, as these should be used as a last resort.

Many organizations have their own continuum of care model, and while they each differ slightly, the main idea is the same: to keep children in families whenever it is safe and possible, and to use residential care as a last option.  Volunteers can use this model as a way of evaluating organizations which they choose to support.  For example, they can seek to financially support those organizations working to keep families together.  One example of an organization doing just this is Child’s I operating in Kampala, Uganda.  Child’s I works diligently to reintegrate separated children back into their family.  When this is not possible, they adhere to the continuum of care by recruiting and training local foster families to take in children.

I do not know how Sarah’s story ends.  I returned home after a month of volunteering at the orphanage in Honduras.  However, I know how I hope her story ends.  I hope it ended with Sarah being reunited with her mother.  I hope an organization provided support to her mother so that she could bring her daughter home.  There are a handful of organizations around the world providing this type of support, but more are needed.  There are too many children needlessly placed in orphanages.  As Christians, we should know the real story of the vulnerable children around the world, and the real story is that many of them have loving families who only need a little support to keep their children at home.  The real story is that often orphanages are used as a first option when they should be the last resort.  The real story is that we need to ask ourselves how we want to love our neighbor’s children so that they can experience the love of Christ through us.

*Name changed for privacy


Lyndsay Mathews holds an MA in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary where she researched the importance of family based care in developing countries. She has worked for numerous non-profits and para-church ministries focused on various social issues.

Sola Scriptura: Reality or Rhetoric?

May 2018 Feature 

Contrary to what is sometimes taught and believed, the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura doesn’t teach “Scripture good, Tradition bad.” Rejection of church traditions was and is not its goal at all. The Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura arose amidst the noise of competing authoritative voices during the medieval ages. These included the writings of church fathers, ancient creeds, papal declarations, liturgical traditions, and pronouncements by theological faculty.

Some of these authoritative sources for guiding faith and practice unfortunately deviated significantly from scripture. Sola Scriptura was thus a doctrine which affirmed that scripture was the supreme source of authority – not the only source of authority – for Christian faith and practice. Whatever was taught, preached, and practiced needed to have good support from scripture and had to arise from good interpretation and understanding of scripture. This affirmation of a high view of scripture is the Reformation’s legacy for the Protestant church.

Evangelical Christians in Singapore today claim that we affirm the same Reformation Sola Scriptura ideal. But do we really hold on to a high view of scripture? My colleagues and I teaching at the Singapore Bible College (SBC) often have long discussions not just about how biblical illiterate the church in Singapore is. For some of us, the greater concern now has shifted to how the church in Singapore hides behind the rhetoric of supporting a high view of scripture while practicing something else in reality. That is to say, while we tightly guard the idea of making scripture the basis of Christian belief and practices, how we handle scripture in reality falls very short of the Reformation ideals.

I teach a course on Bible Study Methods at SBC.  The course allows me to introduce to my students sensible ways of reading scripture in context.  At the same time, it also allows them to surface examples of bible study discussions, devotional readings, and sermons that they have encountered which violate the principles of sensible reading taught in class. Beyond just being able to point a finger at others, students inevitably also come to a point of self-awareness. This new realization is that their diet of devotionals, sermons, bible studies, and sloppy personal reading habits that often lead them to conclusions which, while not theologically incorrect, miss out the main message of the text.

A classic example is from John 2:1-11 where we find the account of Jesus turning water into wine.  A student pointed me to a daily devotional on this passage which has strong appeal to the modern audience but would not have made sense to John’s readers. In the devotion, the author declared that because the first miracle Jesus performed had to do with small details in the kitchen, it shows that God is interested in the little things of our mundane life. God wants to have an intimate relationship with His people!

Conclusions like these are multiplied in weddings sermons, bible studies, and visits to the Cana church while on Bible lands tours. In those settings, we hear messages that affirm the value of marriage, the legitimacy of drinking wine, the need for motherly interventions, as well as how the Christian life is made so much more complete when the believer opens his/her mind to daily miracles.

But is the big message of John 2:1-11 about marriage, wine, mothers, or looking out for miracles in our lives? There is no denying that all of the above conclusions from John 2:1-11 can bring encouragement to the Christian. What is important to note however is that settling for these conclusions force readers and listeners to miss the key points of bible passages and hence the intention and message of their authors.

When John recorded in his gospel the miracle of Jesus changing water into wine, it was part of a series of miracles that John took pains to document.  Far from existing to serve human need, the signs are focused on the identity of Jesus, the Son of God.

In the final verse of our passage is an important clue which John left for his readers: ‘What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’ (v 11). The clue hints that more signs will follow the first. Like the first, the subsequent signs will follow a similar pattern of revealing Jesus’ glory and giving reason after reason for the audience to know and believe in Jesus.  When we read them together as a composite whole, they make a compelling case for following Jesus.

Something was at stake in the life of the church that John was concerned about and trying to address. John’s Gospel was crafted for members of the early church at a time when God’s people badly needed to be strengthened in their faith foundations. There was opposition, persecution, and skepticism directed at those who followed Jesus. Whether it was opposition from the local Jewish authorities, persecution from the Roman political machinery, or the lure of Greek philosophies, these words by John were necessary for the survival of the church as members tried to make sense of the claims of Jesus and the costs that came with following Him.

My work in this season of life is very tied to research and ministry amongst youth and youth adults in Singapore churches. One observation I have made is that we are in a season when the next generation is leaving our churches. This is a generation that is encountering deep skepticism about Christian faith. Given the many attractive alternatives, there is no compelling reason for them to stay or to go to church.  Those who remain often do so only because of what Jesus or the church can offer them!

Even more reason, young people today need to encounter Jesus the way he is portrayed in scripture and not to merely incorporate him into their lives as divine ATM, butler, or therapist to serve our pursuits and passions. If the church persistently offers interpretations of scripture which separate our understanding of the gospel from the drama of encountering the Jesus found in the Gospels, how then do we deepen the roots of the next generation and challenge them to follow Jesus? This is Jesus, the Lord of Lord who challenges his followers to follow him on his terms. This is not Jesus, our genie in a bottle who panders to the first world problems and psychological needs that we seem to be so beset by.

There is a beautiful hymn “Ancient Words” by Michael W. Smith, and its chorus goes, “Ancient words ever true, changing me, and changing you. We have come with open hearts, oh let the ancient words impart.”

The reality too often however is that we have changed the meaning and substance of these ancient words. Our hearts are open, but we have changed the meaning and we have not been changed. We have merely steered the discipleship challenge in scripture to support our needs and wants!

By doing this, we shortchange ourselves, our young people, and our congregation members. We also lose our moral authority to challenge cult groups and groups that teach heresy because we play the same interpretive game that they do!

What sort of corrective measures can we undertake to recapture the Reformation ideal of Sola Scriptura where more faithful readings, interpretations, and understandings of scripture can be found? Space only allows me to highlight one simple application, which is to cultivate the habit of reading scripture well.

The reality is that we don’t have the habit of reading Scripture well. When we read novels, examine legal documents, or watch movies, we naturally work out way from beginning to end. The reason why we take pains to do so is because meaning is found in reading or watching a text in its entirety. We do not take a favorite sentence from the book, a favorite clause from the legal document, or a favorite still shot from the movie and make whatever we want out of it.

Yet we do this in our Bible readings and interpretations all the time! We violate all the rules of reading a text or watching a movie sensibly in how we read and apply scripture.

What evangelical Christians thus need to do is to cultivate the habit of reading long portions of biblical texts over and over again. Alternatively, we could cultivate the habit of listening to long portions of biblical texts regularly and repeatedly. It could be listening to whole gospels, epistles, or even books in one session. Or it could be listening to a chapter multiple times over to understand the contours and features of the text or to discern for repeated themes and emphases.

In addition, we also need to realize that the wrong first question to ask any Bible passage we read is “What does this text mean to me?” The right first question to ask is “What does this text mean?” followed by “How does that meaning apply to me?

Habits and disciplines such as these help us to understand key points and main messages of biblical passages. They help us to develop deeper insights into God’s word and grow our commitment to Sola Scriptura from mere rhetoric to reality!


Dr Calvin Chong is Associate Professor, Educational Ministries at the Singapore Bible College. His teaching and research interests include orality studies, hermeneutics, new educational technologies, designing learning experiences, the impact of narratives on worldview and values, conflict resolution/reconciliation, and contemporary urban missions and youth issues.